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Elaine Abraham

Photo of Elaine Abraham
Categories: 2011 Alumnae, Education, Health, Science


Elaine was born in Yakutat of the Raven moiety, the clan of Copper River, and from the Shaman’s Owl House, and is the daughter of the Brown Bear. Mount St. Elias is her clan crest. Her mother was Susie Bremmer, whose grandfather was John James Bremmer from Scotland, the guide for Lt. Allen who explored the Copper River area. Because of his assistance with mapping, Bremmer river, valley, glacier and mine were named in Bremmer’s honor. Elaine’s father was a Tlingit chief from Yakutat from the Brown Bear moiety. Her mother read to the children from the bible and her father introduced them to the world through National Geographic magazines.

Yakutat did not have a high school, so Elaine went to boarding school at Sheldon Jackson High School/ College. After graduation, she went to the school of nursing at Ganado, Ariz., graduated and returned to Alaska as the first Tlingit registered nurse. She worked with the Indian Health Service in Bethel and Sitka during diphtheria and tuberculosis epidemics.  While working in Sitka, she served as the school board president during the desegregation of the village school; established the Southeast Alaska Native Health Aide Program — which became the model for the statewide Alaska Native Health Aide Program — and organized the Southeast Native Board of Health. Later, Elaine was instrumental in the creation of the Alaska Native Medical Center in Anchorage.

After her career as a nurse, Elaine initiated her career in education at Sheldon Jackson University and the University of Alaska. She earned a bachelor’s degree in human resources development from Alaska Pacific University;  a master of arts in teaching from APU; and is currently a doctoral student pursuing a a degree in natural health. At Sheldon Jackson College, she served as Associate Dean of Students, Director of Social Services, and Vice President for Institutional Development. At the University of Alaska, she co-founded the Alaska Native Language Center. In 1976 Elaine became the Vice President for Rural Education Affairs of the University of Alaska statewide system— she was both the first Native American and the first woman to hold a senior position in the statewide administration. She created innovative programs for recruiting and retaining Alaska Native students in higher education and made path-breaking initiatives to build bridges between Alaska Native communities and the university. She brought new educational opportunities to Alaskans throughout the state by establishing community colleges in Nome, Barrow, Tanana, Kotzebue, Sitka, Ketchikan, Valdez, Aleutians, and Kodiak.

Currently, Elaine is building bridges between Alaska Natives and scientists, promoting cutting-edge approaches to understanding climate change around the globe as the chair of the Alaska Native Science Commission. The commission supports scientific research that ensures the protection of indigenous cultures and builds bridges between western science and traditional ways of knowing.

Throughout Elaine’s life, she has understood the relationship between the local and the global and she is respected and influential on village, state, national, and international levels. Her messages have global significance and have helped garner respect for indigenous knowledge and the rights of indigenous peoples. While Elaine’s impact has been global and her accomplishments numerous, they only tell part of the story. She is slight in stature but when Elaine speaks, she captivates her listeners with her messages, her humility and her enthusiasm. Forever looking for opportunities to broaden her own knowledge, Elaine has traveled to far-flung places to meet with indigenous peoples in their native lands to help them and exchange teachings. She has helped many people see that traditional observations are critically important to western scientific analysis.

Elaine is a mentor and role model because she lives her life according to her own teachings, whether she is interacting with her own family or serving, sometimes as the only woman, on a commission or board. Elaine could be described as:

  • respectful, honest, kind, intelligent, humble, witty;
  • an individual with strong character who stands up for her convictions;
  • applying her positive attributes to professional and personal relationships;
  • a role model who has demonstrated that you are never too old to expand your own knowledge base by learning from others
  • a woman of valor who is generous with her knowledge and compassion toward others.

She is well known throughout the world as a revered Tlingit elder. She is the recipient of the American Indian Achievement Award, Indian Council Fire (1973). Elaine was the first Alaska Native and the seventh American Indian woman to receive this award. It was the only award of national stature given to an American Indian. She also received the Meritorious Service Award, University of Alaska Anchorage (1996): Citizen of the Year Award, Cook Inlet Native Association (1984); Alaska Native/American Indian Education Advocate Award, Johnson O’Malley Parent Committee (1978); State of Alaska Distinguished Alaskan Title (1974).

Induction ceremony acceptance speech

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